Monday, April 28, 2008


One of the columnists who inspired this site is Philologos of The Forward. He writes about Jewish words and phrases, and specifically has a good knowledge of Yiddish (which I do not share). Nowhere on the site is his name given, but most of the speculation on the internet indicates that it's the writer Hillel Halkin. I have no inside knowledge to confirm or deny this, but there are some hints in his writing. For example, in this week's column he quotes Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan, who happens to be Halkin's cousin. (We've also seen him quote Halkin's uncle Rabbi Saul Lieberman before, but Lieberman was such a well known expert that it doesn't necessarily indicate a family relationship.)

Until recently, I hadn't read any of Halkin's identified writings. But not long ago, I started reading a very interesting book by him called Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic. The book consists of long letters that Halkin, living in Zichron Yaakov in the 1970s, wrote to an American friend. The letters discuss the roles of Israel and the diaspora, and the importance of making aliya. I haven't finished the book yet, but although it's over 30 years old, I think it still seems very relevant (and some of the anachronisms are fun too.)

At one point reading the book, I got a feeling that if Halkin isn't Philologos, they certainly share an interest in Hebrew etymology (as of course, I do.) On page 22, Halkin quotes his anonymous American correspondent:

It's a little like that butt of so many old jokes, the bagel. What other item of food is more quintessentially Jewish in America? And then you come to Israel and discover that there is something called a bagel there too, or rather, a bageleh (Moisheleh, Saraleh, imaleh, why not bageleh?), and that it shares certain properties with the bagel you know: it's round, there's a hole in the middle, etc. ... only the taste just isn't the same. (For one thing, it's sprinkled with sesame, and I happen to hate sesame. The hole is too big, the dough is too soft, I won't even mention cream cheese or lox, which you can look high and low for - a grilled porkchop is far easier to find in your Jewish state.) One could, I suppose, investigate the common European ancestor of the two to determine which is more authentic, but this would lead to the discovery of a third bagel, resembling the first two yet unique unto itself. And why should one have to choose among them?
And regarding the bagel, Halkin responds:

Concerning the real sesame on your metaphorical bagel, by the way, it certainly is not European in origin; in fact, it derives from the Arabs, who bake a hard, round doughnut calld ka'ak similar to the Israeli; yet this only complicates the problem, since it's likely that the Arab ka'ak is a descendant of an ancient Palestinian Jewish bagel or ka'ach that is referred to in the Mishnah. Such are the strange dialectics of the return of a people to its land.
So this is one of those anachronisms - today it's easy to find in Israel lox, cream cheese and "American bagels". (Haven't tried looking for pork chops for comparison). But lets look a little further at how the Israeli bageleh and the American bagel diverged.

Clearly the words have the same origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin for "bagel":

1919, from Yiddish beygl, from M.H.G. boug- "ring, bracelet," from O.H.G. boug, related to biogan "to bend" and O.E. beag "ring"
William Safire (the first language columnist to inspire me) writes in this 1994 column:

The bagel, according to the Yiddishist Leo Rosten, was first cited in the community regulations of Cracow, Poland, in 1610; the toroidal roll was said to be a gift to women in childbirth. (That strikes me as apocryphal; next we'll hear that the Civil War expression about bearing pain, to bite the bullet, was rooted in to bite the bagel. Not so.)

The word for the medieval jawbreaker was imported into English from the Yiddish beygl, which in 1919 was spelled beigel and in 1932 was shortened to bagel. According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, it is rooted in the Old High German boug, related to biogan "to bend," from the Proto-Germanic biuzanan and the Indo-European bheugh-, the pronunciation of which is a melancholy exhalation.

If bending, ring shaped dough reminds you of another food - the pretzel - that's not a coincidence. In her book Classic Russian Cooking, Elena Molokhovets writes that

Pretzels are a very old form of baked goods and were referred to in Jewish sources as early as the first half of the thirteenth century. (A bagel is simply a type of pretzel.) Bagels, with many local variations, were known throughout the historic territory of the Ashkenazi Jews.

The term bageleh in Hebrew therefore refers to pretzels. The original association of course is with soft bagels, not the hard ones found in vending machines, but the term applies to both.

If you're finding it difficult to make the connection between bagels and pretzels, take a second and try to describe the difference (other than the sesame seeds mentioned above - I always been a fan of sesame bagels.) It turns out that the difference is in the boiling process:

Homemade pretzels and soft pretzels are often made much the same way as bagels, by poaching them in boiling water before baking, the difference being that bagels are usually poached in salt water rather than water and baking soda.
So we today find in Israel bageleh בייגלה - pretzels and bageleh amerikai - American bagels. What about ka'ach כעך?

While it might be the more official word, it seems to be much less popular than bageleh. This is evidenced by the discussion on the Hebrew Wikipedia page, where the writers aren't sure whether a ka'ach is a bagel or a pretzel.

Stahl writes that the word ka'ach was chosen in Modern Hebrew because of its use in Talmudic Hebrew (see Pesachim 48b and Brachot 38a where it appears as כעבין). Then it seemed to mean small loaves of bread. Klein defines it as "ring-shaped cake", and provides the following etymology:

Aramaic כעכא, borrowed from Persian kak, whence also Arabic ka'k.
Stahl says that there are even earlier references in Ancient Egyptian and Coptic. The word kahk seems rather similar to the English word "cake", with cognates in other European languages. However, Stahl writes that linguists do not feel that the words are connected, but perhaps both developed independently from baby-talk, similar to "mama" and "papa".

I'll end with a cute joke I found while researching this topic.

שני בייגלה יושבים על המדף בחנות.
פתאום בא מישהו
ולוקח אחד מהם, אז השני צועק: "לאא!!!! היינו כאחים!!"

"Two bagelach were sitting on the shelf of a store. Somebody comes and takes one of them, and the other shouts - 'No!!! We were k'achim!! (literally 'like brothers')"

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